A Russian Summer

by James Keogh


I arrived at our neighbour's lodge at eight o'clock precisely, dressed in my finest jacket, the one my mother had previously deemed unnecessary for dinner with this same family. But this was a special invitation, by Princess Anoushka herself, and not to a formal dinner or any such like, although I knew nothing of this when I entered the lodge. Bogdan, the old servant, was as ever his pleasant self, he led the way towards the rear from where emanated the voices of several men seemingly merrymaking. Above these deep and loud voices was the lighter laughing melodious voice of Princess Anoushka.

As I entered the room I stood overcome by the sight before me. The Princess was standing on a chair in the middle of a group of men, the same young men I had first seen her with, she held a long stick with coloured ribbons which she was waving in the air as she urged on the young men. They were on hands and knees, their jackets discarded, they careened around her on the floor in some kind of race.

When she spotted me she gave me that incredible smile of hers. "Ah! Another guest, come in, come in! Gentlemen, let me introduce our neighbour's son, Alexei. Let us make him welcome."

The young men halted their race around her chair and Konstantin stood up and approached me. "Come here," he said, putting an arm around me and pulling me further into the room.

On a table which had been pushed into one corner, were bottles, glasses, and various half-eaten platters of food. It was obvious the princess's other guests had been there some time and were all by now quite amply imbibed with liquor. Konstantin poured a large glass of vodka from one of the half empty bottles.

"It's a tradition," he said, smiling as he handed me the glass.

I hesitated, but this was Konstantin offering the drink, and so I swallowed. The liquid burnt my throat and after a short moment, exploded in my head. I had only twice taken strong liquor and was not at all used to the effects.

The chase around the princess had finished, she stepped off her chair, still waving her cane and ribbons, she introduced each of her guests.

"It's not fair," cried Radomir, the apparent winner of the event.

His mock complaining was silenced by a kiss on the mouth by Princess Anoushka, who held his head between the palms of her hands. To say I was shocked would be understating my feelings. Never in my life had I witnessed such an event.

"Konstantin! Konstantin!" The chant went around the room.

"My dearest Konstantin," the princess smiled at him with a wicked glint in her eyes. "You have forfeited, by leaving the floor. You must..."

Konstantin held my head between his palms and brought his lips to mine. My eyes were wide with shock and, surprise, my legs turned to jelly, and he had to hold me, for otherwise I would have fallen. He sat me in a chair as I regarded him with the foolish look of a village idiot. Another cheer went up and applause echoed around the room.

"Well done," cried another guest, and he came over to help me to my feet.

The game of forfeits continued. The Princess invented all sorts of extraordinary forfeits and for one such, I found myself having to wrap my body over that of Vyacheslav, the third young gentleman who completed her circle of admirers. He was a comely youth, not unattractive, and I did not mind at all our entanglement as I attempted to win, and reach the object set out by Princess Anoushka, without losing my balance. For a boy used to a quiet and sober life in a dignified house, this evening full of gaiety and loud raucous behaviour with unknown persons, was another world, and a revelation. It had my head spinning, launched free by that glass of vodka, which was compounded with another later, my forfeit for losing a challenge.

I began laughing and shouting along with the others, we were all egged on to new heights by our mistress of ceremonies, the princess. Such was the noise, that we provoked Princess Anoushka's mother to leave the clerk she was in discussion with over some financial matter, to enquire as to what all the uproar was. But I did not mind at all, I felt such a freedom, I cared not a jot for anyone's dubious regard. In one forfeit I was again in the company of Konstantin, and by this time, as the evening had worn on, we were all shirtless. I had to tell him a secret. I remember we were sitting close together, I felt an exquisite sensation as my bare arm pressed against his chest, his head was resting on my shoulder. He whispered to me, "What is it?" but I merely blushed and turned away, laughing. Later, when I was trying an impossible handstand next to Radomir, and fell, I felt a sharp slap on my behind and turned to see Konstantin grinning hugely, "that is for not telling your secret." He had had his revenge.

What we didn't do that evening. When we grew tired of forfeits, we played the piano and sang, we even danced and pretended to be a group of travelling gypsies. Radomir produced a bear head from somewhere and chased after the princess. I learnt some card tricks and listened to recited poetry, we attempted a Cossack dance, arms linked together, legs kicking, until we fell in a heap on top of each other. From time to time I would catch Konstantin's regard, even his bloodshot eyes did not lose their sparkle. At the end we were quite worn out. I thanked the princess for inviting me and whispered to Konstantin in parting, how much I enjoyed our evening.

The night air brought a chill that made me shiver, the sky was dark and covered with fast moving clouds highlighted by the moonlight and brought to life by a strike of lightning. Minutes later as I reached our house, there was a rumble of thunder from somewhere in the distance behind me. A storm was brewing.

I had to step past our doorman, whom I woke up. He grumbled that my mother was once again angry with me, that she had nearly sent him to fetch me home, but my father had stopped her. I replied that I was going straight to bed, the first time I had retired without saying goodnight and kissing my mother.

I did not go to bed. I put the candle out and sat a long time on a chair in the dark, as if spell-bound. The feelings flooding through me were so new and sweet. I recollected all those little moments from the evening, a smile, a touch, and a twinkle in the eyes. I shivered, whether from the cold or my emotions I cannot clearly say, but one thing was clear, I was in love. Not like those suitors who chased around the princess, no, this was different. I was in love with a gallant young hussar. Konstantin's face floated before me like in a dream, his piercing eyes that seemed to reach inside to my soul. I was almost suffocating from emotions and as I gulped the chill air I thought I would burst into tears. Whether from the love I felt or the unnatural truth which had been revealed to me, it was not possible to say.

I do not know how much time I passed in this turmoil, I did finally get up and slip beneath the covers of my bed. I lay my head on the pillow but did not close my eyes, afraid if I fell asleep this feeling, this emotion, might fade and be lost forever. I noticed a flash of light which illuminated the window and dispelled momentarily a little of the darkness that shrouded the room. I heard a distant muffled rumbling which grew louder before fading. A storm was indeed brewing. I stared as the explosions of light became more frequent and the thunder claps closer together. It was as if nature echoed my tormented soul, shot out thunder flashes which might pierce through the glass of the window panes and touch my very person. Yet I could not turn away, I watched the storm through pelting sheets of rain that now beat against the little window. I watched until it grew lighter outside and I could see the sky was shot crimson as night turned to day and a red sun rose in the east. With the dawn the storm grew fainter and moved away, the rain became light and stopped, droplets slid down the glass, glinting and sparkling in the morning light.

The image of Konstantin stayed with me as I fell asleep. Everything was calmer now the stormy night had passed, and apart from the sodden land and wet timber, who would have known there was such a storm. The red sky of dawn was a warning, so it is said by the peasants, but for me it was simply beautiful.

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